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The Guardian view on Ukraine’s counteroffensive: even success has a cost

The current fog of war in Ukraine is in large part artificially generated: “Plans love silence,” Kyiv observed in a typically well-executed video released on social media on Sunday, showing its soldiers holding fingers to their lips. After months of speculation, and amid perceptible impatience in some foreign capitals, its long-awaited counteroffensive appears at last to be in its preliminary stages.

The deputy defence minister has acknowledged that “offensive actions” have begun in some areas. They appear to be testing and – perhaps – creating Russian vulnerabilities, presumably with a view to determining where to commit key troops along the 600-mile frontline. Russia has created multiple layers of defences; US sources have suggested that those could prove less formidable than they appear.
The urgency of this offensive may be felt most strongly by those living under Russian occupation. Momentum is necessary to maintain the morale of soldiers and a nation. Yet success is also required to reassure foreign capitals that support for Kyiv is not only desirable but still effective – that the arms and ammunition sent produce results on the ground.

Ukraine’s leaders have been astonishingly successful in persuading other leaders to step up supplies, providing the kind of equipment ruled out as unthinkable only months before. But support is not infinite and Joe Biden is preparing to run against Donald Trump, who will not even say he wants Ukraine to win, for the presidency in 2024.

All the conjecture about Kyiv’s plans and abilities can obscure perhaps the most important fact about this endeavour. What is often fogged, for those watching from afar, is not just what happens in each battle, with what effort and weaponry, to what military and political effect, but the human price. Those attacking usually suffer far more casualties than those defending. Even extraordinary success for Kyiv – whether in liberating territory or by engaging and destroying Russian formations – will cost the lives of large numbers of fighters, many of whom were teachers or farmers or engineers or artists until war was forced upon them.

Civilians too will continue to pay. On Sunday, a two-year-old girl was killed in a Russian strike on Dnipro. The death of children is an increasingly familiar horror; another was unleashed on Tuesday with the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam and power plant on the Dnipro River – forcing thousands to flee to safety as their homes and land were flooded in a human-made disaster that could have consequences for generations.
Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for the attack. The immediate benefit is to Russia, in helping to fend off a Ukrainian advance. It has been relentless in targeting other parts of Ukraine’s power network. But the devastation also cuts off desperately needed water supplies to annexed Crimea. Experts say that there is no immediate risk to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant upstream, where reactors have already been shut down and the cooling lake on site should be sufficient for the next few months. But the recklessness shown towards the facility underlines the fear that there could be worse to come.

For a country fighting off occupiers, the necessity of success is shadowed by its cost. Against an adversary such as Russia, which has shown itself ruthlessly indifferent to distinctions between the military and civilians in war, that will be especially the case.